West Ham United 2 Birmingham City 1 (1st Leg Carling Cup Semi)
This was a little corker of a game that swung wildly over the 90 minutes, promising a nail-biter for both sets of fans when the Second-leg is played at St. Andrews later in the month.
That West Ham go into that match with a narrow advantage is thanks to substitute Carlton Cole perhaps, but more likely the major pat on the back needs to go to Brum's keeper Ben Foster, who ten minutes from time, allowed a weak shot from Cole to trickle through his legs to the delight of the home fans. It was particularly amusing in view of the abuse heaped on Robert Green by the Birmingham supporters, considering Green's own performance was top-drawer and confirmed his own World Cup nightmare is now firmly consigned to the archives.
It says much for the rollercoaster emotions of this match that prior to the Cole / Foster moment, I suspect most West Ham fans would have taken the draw and hoped to re-group in the second leg. After Victor Obinna was sent-off for apparently trying to leave a mark on Larsson's family commitments - and I say 'apparently' only because neither I, nor anyone round me in the Bobby Moore Lower, saw what happened, saw the red card being waved and, in some cases, didn't even realise the Nigerian had been sent-off - it looked as if Birmingham may leave Upton Park with a healthy lead such was the pressure that the home side were under.
Most West Ham fans would consider some sort of justice was done though, as in the first half, the Hammers were irresistible and could well have been two or three goals to the good. As it was Mark Noble's 13th minute cracker from a narrow angle was all that the attacking home side had to show. Noble himself started the move from midfield, his cross being headed down by Obinna, lashed back across the area by Spector and struck with some power by Noble again from a tight angle.
After that, bayed on by vociferous home support, West Ham continued to attack. Matthew Upson - surprisingly but impressively playing at left-back - had already found plenty of space and forced a good save from Foster before the opening goal, and that continued with Spector's shot being punched behind by the Blue's keeper, who then produced an even better save to tip over a towering header from the impressive Tomkins. Foster again saved superbly from Obinna's near-post drive while Sears twice came close. It was virtually all West Ham, although Jerome's speed posed a constant threat, if not much else.
The half-time not only brought respite to Birmingham though, the visitors took the field a different side and there was a feeling of deja-vu for the home fans as West Ham seemed to once again end up defending deep areas. Sears cleared off the line after 55 minutes but the respite was brief as, a minute later, Ridgewell headed in unimpeded. I've not seen a replay but Ridgewell looked unmarked from where I was sitting although reports suggest he did well to lose his marker.
With West Ham tottering and the visiting fans suddenly making more noise, Obinna was sent off three minutes later in what might be the oddest sending-off scenario I've ever witnessed first hand. Even as Obinna left the field I heard one fan behind me say "He must be injured or something..". That he deserved to go is not in doubt, my Father - whose knowledge of football is equal only to my skill as a Marine Engineer (his pre-retirement occupation) - asked 'what we he thinking?' (Dad's advanced years preclude him from telling me Obinna kicked Larsson in the nuts). The Nigerian striker's stupidity could have been compounded had Birmingham taken advantage but Green looked imperious and the Hammer's defended manfully, if not a little panicky at times. Birmingham looked to have a shout for a penalty when Ferguson went over in the area and the Upton Park crowd held their breath but the referee decided not - I couldn't really tell from where I was - and play continued.
To help relieve the issue, Grant wisely put on Cole and Hines for the tiring Piquionne and Noble and the match turned again. Cole will always have his critics but I thought his presence in leading the line turned the match in West Ham's favour again although no-one is suggesting he really meant the shot that trickled under Carson from Spector's excellent run and cross.
Birmingham put West Ham under intense pressure in the closing minutes but the Hammer's held on to take a finely-balanced tie back to St. Andrew's. A terrific match, great result in view of having to play with 10 men for 30 minutes but I suspect I might need some medication for the second-leg.
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